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HOW SAFE IS SAFE? 



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HOW SAFE IS SAFE? 

by D£ivid A. Lucht 
Deputy Administrator 

National Fire Prevention and Control ;\diT;ini strat.i on 
U.S. DeDartrr.ent of Coipjr'.erco 



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HOW SAFE IS SAFE? 
. by David A. Lucht 



How safe are we? How safe do we vjant to be? Hov; do 
we measure safety? Hov/ do we decide? 

While these ire fundamental questions, they are asked 
all too infrequently in the fire safety field. Even v;hen 
they are asked, practically no one can ansv/er them. VJhen 
fire protection experts do step forr-zard to offer answers, 
their views are frequently received with question or doubt. 
Rexford Wilson, a leading fire protection engineer, recently 
put it this v.'ay: "We are perceived to be dealing in beads, 
trinkets and shells, whi'^^^ other professions are using mathe- 
matics, science and computers." 

V7hether or not we are consciously asking ourselves the 
important, basic safety questions, v/e are making safety decisions 
everyday. The decisions are made in many ways. Decisions are 
made by the national organizations which produce model codes and 
standards; decisions are made by the local officials who adopt 
those model codes and standards; decisions are made by the people 
v;ho design our buildings. • 



When m-jdel codes and standards are v/ritten by such organ- 
izations as the Building Officials and Code Administrators Inter- 
national (BOCA), the Southern Building Code Congress (SBCC) , 
the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO) , or 
the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) , they are v:ritten 
through the "consensus standards-making process." This means 
that people with varying viev7S and backgrounds come together to 
work out V7hat the substance and wording of the code or standard 
will be. Once agreeraent is reached, the text is submitted to a 
vote to formaliJie the consensus. The model code or model standard 
is then publislied for Federal, state or local consideration and 
adoption. By the time this process is completed, many decisions 
have been made; decisions as to hov7 safe V7e are and how safe we 
are going to be. 

Officials at the Federal, state and local level are 
responsible for the lega]. adoption of the model codes and standards 
Often these officials simply adopt by reference t-he consensus 
achieved by the model code organizations. But sometimes changes 
are made. The factors v;hich influence these changes are varied. 
They are often made in an environment or high emotion. 



Follov/ing a nursing hojp.e disaster in the state of Ohio, 
for example, fire experts testified about whait needed to be done 
to make nursing hom.es safer. SomiO s^^-id that plastic v/as tebaskets 
should be outlav/ed. Some said that carpeting should be outlav;ed. 
Some said that smoke detectors should be required because they 
respond quicker than sprinklers. SorAe said sprinklers should be 
required because they put the fire out. Some said that sprinklers 
should not be required because the v.'ater from the sprinkler system 
might make things worse rather than better. /ifter government 
officials hear testimony such as this, they make their decisions. 
And these decisions are the ones that determine just how safe we 
v;ill be. 

Engineers and architects also ma?:e decisions that e.-ffect 
hov; safe V7e v.'ill be. Their design decisions are often based 
upon the minimum requirem.ants of the codes in effect in their 
jurisdiction. Somietim.es their design decisions are m.ade v.'ith 
the benefit of consultation from a qualified fire protection 
engineer. Sometimes that fire protection engineer performs a 
systematic analysis of the building being designed to determine 
appropriate levels of safety. Sy;:tem.atic fire safety analysis 
such as this is rare, hov.'ever. 



If v/e are really going to reduce fire losses in the United 
States so that v/e are no long-r a leadincj nation in per capita 
dollar loss and death rates, v;e must get ourselves out of the vjorld 
of guessv.'ork and emotion. Wo must entor into an era of "mathematics, 
science and computers"; a logical fire safety design method. We 
have to begin making more objective decisions about how safe we 
are going to be. More objective decisionrnalcing based on hard 
data analysis and a systematic v;eighing of alternatives must 
take place in the v;riting of our model codes and standards, in 
the adoption of those codes and standards, and iTi the design of 
our buildings. 

LOGICAL FIRESAFETY DESIGN METHOD 

Some fire experts claim to have a logical fire safety design 
methodology v/hich enables them to determine hov; safe v;e are and 
to measure fire safety. The nuinber of those fire experts is 
small and sometim.es their analysis is viev;ed v;it.h doubt. Doubt, 
is sometimes expressed by local building offici^^ls or fire offic£ils 
vjho are not aware of the fire safety design method or are not 
con'v'inced of its validity. A logical fire safety design method 
has not bec-n thoroughly documented and judged by a legitimate 
nationwide professional orgdinization . 



The first systematic method for measuring fire safety was 
developed in 1902. In that year, A.F. Dean of the Western Board 
of Fire Underwriters published, "The Analytic System for the 
Measurement of Relative Fire Hazards." Dean's system assigned 
relative values to various fire protection characteristics of 
buildings. This system enabled a numerical evaluation of each 
building for fire insurance rating purposes. Using this scheme, the 
property insurance industry has determined fire insurance rates for 
different classes of buildings and uses with a variety of different 

fire hazards present. Using these rates, the industry has been 

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able to derive fire insurance premiums v;hich are adequate to 

cover operating expenses, loss payments, and profits through 
the years. Descendants of this analytical system are still being 
used today throughout the United States. 

The International Conference on Fire Safety in High Rise 
Buildings, convened in April 1971 by the General Services 
Administration (GSA) , Public Buildings Service, brought together 
70 participants representing the many disciplines associated 
v/ith fire safety design and planning. The summary report, of 
that conference contains the follovzing significant statement: 



1 "International Conference on Fire Safety in High Rise Buildings", 
April 12 - 16, 19 71, Air lie House, VJarrenton, VA. General 
Services Administration, Washington, D.C. , 1971. 



"What follov7S (in the tot .1 report) is the beginning 
of a systems concept jelled from the deliberations of 
the conference for addressing the firesafety element 
in high-rise buildings. The ultimate objective is a 
system v/hich can be integrated into a total systems 
design and management concept, considering functional 
goals and all required attributes of such buildings. 
This can be done by constructing a firesafe design, 
and management system, identifying all major elements 
in that system, presenting recomm.endations for 
satisfying elemental requireraents--including alternatives 
v;here they are known to exist--and by identifying a 
total system concept vvithin v;hic'; new solutions rriay be 
sought and gaps in knowledge filled." 

In 1972 the General Services Administration published 
its "system.s approach" in the "Interim Guide to Goal Oriented 
Systems Approach to Building Fire Safety' for use in determining 
fire safety criteria for governmental buildings. Here the 
quantification of fire safety depends on a series of probability 
curves which describe GSA's fire safety goals and loss experience, 
The GSA curves are subjectively developed. This is the only 



2 "Interim Guide for Goal Oriented Systems ApproacTi to Building 
Fire Safety," General Services Administration, Washington, D.C 
April 19 72. 



complete analytical system for probabilistic evaluation of the 
anticipated success in building fire safety performance. 

The National Fire Protection Association created its Committee 
on Systems Concepts for Fire Protection in Structures, in June, 
19 72, making it "responsible for developing systems concepts and 
criteria for fire protection in structures." Based on work done 
by the National Bureau of Standards and the General Services 

Administration, the coirumittee developed a "decision tree" which 

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was published in 1974. 

The NFPA and the GSA decision trees describe relationships 
between elements which make up a building's firesafetv system. 
Both show the hierarchy of conceivable factors and whether these 
act dependently or independently in the fire safety system. 
Each approach c:,n be quantified. The NFPA decision tree is the 
moi'e general form.. 

Today there are several variations of the systems approach 
in existence but few people know hov/ to use tiiem. What is v/orse, 
there is still debate among fire professionals as to which approach 
is better or in fact whotlier any of them are valid in the first 
place. P^s mentioned earlier, none of the firesafety system.s 
anaylsis methods have been thoroughly documented and evaluated 
by nationally recognized nrofessional associations. 



3 "Decision Tree," Conmiittee on Systems Concepts for Fi.re 

Protection in Structures, copyrighted Noveml^er 19 74, National 
Fire Protection Association, Boston, Mass. 



WHERE DO VJE GO FROM HERE? 

If V7e are going to have an irr.pact on reducing fire lo:..;e3, 
a good place to start is v;ith an ob;;ective approach to 
questions such as how safe are v;e ani hov/ safe do v;e want 
to be? The National ire Prevention and Control Administration 
(NFPCA) is acting nov; to determine v;r.at VJe know and v^fhat we 
don't know in the area of systematic analysis of building 
fire safety. We vzant to identify v.'hf-t can be measured and 
what c^m't be measured. We want to determine tlie limits of 
the systems approach or the "decision tree." Hov7 can these 
approaches be used subjectively and ho.v can they be used 
objectively? 

NFPCA is v.'orking with the Society of Fire Protection Engineers 
(SFPE) to achieve this goal. A grant to the SFPE v;ill support 
a project to assemble the current body of knovzledge in fire 
protection engineeri': -- a systematic approach to identify 
and solve building fire safety problem.s. The result of this 
project will be a textbook describing the state of the art in 
building firesafety design. The text vjill include a description 
of the theory, approach and concept of a systems analysis 
procedure as well as fire protectior. engineering fundamentals. 



This project v;ill not include research to develop nev/ 
technology- Rather, it v/ill asserr.blr; the current state of the 
art into a cohei'ent and vinderstandable v/ritten form. The 
text v/ill not be a cookbook; it will address concepts, 
techniques, and problem-solving logic. Also, thie text will 
not desci"ibe how to design specific nechcinic^il components 
such as sprinkler systems. Rather, it will address the 
question of how one should go about deciding v/hether or not 
a sprinkler system should be part of the building firesafety 
system. The text will not cover hov: to design or specify ei 
fire V7all. It will describe a procedure to follow in deciding 
whether or not a fire v;all is needed as pai't of the building 
firesafety system. It is intended that this text will be a 
pi'actical, working tool for use in the real v;orld of solving 
today's firesafety problems. 

OTPIER FIRE .ADMINISTRATION EFFORTS 

The National Fire Administration has sevei'al other efforts 
underway to increase the use of system.s analysis in firesafety 
decisionmaking. T\-70 specific sections of the 1974 Fire Preventioi 
and Control Act address building fire safety. SectJ.on 12, 



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"Review of Codes," requires the NFPCA to reviev; fire prevention 
and building codes and "suggest improvements." It is felt 
that the National Fire Administration can make a signific£.nt 
contribution in this area by investing resources in the 
development of systems analysis and cost benefit analysis 
techniques v/hich v/ill help both those v;ho write the codes 
and those who adopt and enforce them mtake more objective 
decisions. Section 13 of the Fire Prevention and Control 
Act is titled, "Fire Safety Effectiveness Statements." 
This Section of the Act is aimed at "consumer decisioniaaking. " 
Under this provision, the National Fire Administration vrill 
develop guidelines i'or m.easuring and docum.enting the relative 
safety provided by various types of buildings. On a voluntary 
basis, building ov;ners and managers could apply these guide- 
lines to derive firesafety m.easures for the public or the 
"building consumer." For example, som.eday the traveler 
may look at various hotel listings in his travel guide and 
see hotels classified as A, B, or C with respect to fire 
safety. If the traveler desires, he or she may decide v/hich 
hotel to patronize based on the degree of firesafety provided. 
Obviously, a systematic and objective methodology must bo 



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developed to derive these kinds of measvires. Preliminary 
v7ork to develop analytical techniques for both "reviev; of 
codes" and implementation of the Fire Safety E:f f ectiveness 
Statements Program is nov; underway through a grant to the 

") Fire Protection Engineering Department at the Univ-::rsity 
of Maryland. 

Other work is also in progress to assist the building 
designer in firesafety decisionmaking. The NFPCA i-ecently 
published "A Fire Protection Primer for Architects." This 
Primer is probably one of the first of its kind in theit it 
introduces the architect to firesafety design consider^ltions 
in a form which the professional architect can most easily 
relate to. Also, the Fire Adm.inistration ' s National Fire 

__, Academy has a contract with the National Loss Control Service 
Corporation to develop a 30-hour firesafety design course 
for architects. This will be the first in a series of courses 
designed specifically for the building designer. It v;ill 
introduce the student to some of the more fundamental concepts 
of building firesafety problems and their solutions. It is 
expected that this course v;i.l 1 be ready in about six months ; 
it v.'ill be disseiiiinatod in cooperation v/ith the American 
Institute of Arcliitects. 



Lerup, Lars; Cronrath, David; and Liv, John Koh Chifing, 
"Learn From Fire: A Fire Prohection Primer for Architects. 
University of California, College of PJnvironmental Design, 
Architecture Life Safety Group, Eorkelcy, CA . 1977. 
Prepared for the National Fire Prevention and Control 
Administration, VJasb-Jngton , D.C., C.rant number 75008. 



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The Fire Administration' s" National Fire Data Center is 
also making an important contribution. The collection 
and analysis of fire statistics are necessary in objective 
decisionmaking. The most sophisticated systems analysis 
techniques require the use of numerical values in making 
probabilistic determinations of events. Unfortunately, the 
United States has been sorely lacking in standarized, 
"processable" fire statistics. Three years ago, no two 
states collected fire data using compatible terminology 
and coding systems. The National Fire Data Center is v;orking 
vigorously to increase standardization across existing data 
systems and to help states start up nev? systems. The Data Center 
adopted NFPA Standard No. 901, "Uniform. Coding for Fire 
Protection," as a standard dictionary of terms and numerical 
codes. At this time, 19 states are in various stages of 
starting up or converting to standardized data system.s. 
The Firo Administration is providing grants, computer soft- 
v?are, training and materials to the various states to help 
them get into this National Fire Incident Reporting System. 
As this system grov;s and matures, our ability to conduct 
quantitative analyses v/ill grov/ substantially. This v/ill 

5 '^iniform Coding 'for Firo Protection." National Fire 

Protection Association, Boston, Mass. NFPA No. 901-1976. 



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greatly reinforce and improve our ability to make objective 
decisions about hov; safe V7e are and hov; safe vre v/ant to be. 
As a result of the v.'ork done so far, the Fire Data Center 
is publishing "Fire in the United States" v/hich represents 
the most comprehensive and in-depth study of the nation's 
fire problem ever to be done. 

H0V7 SAFE IS SAF/^? 

How safe is safe? Safe is as safe as v;e V7ant it to be. 
K' make decisions in this regard every day in the model 
codes and standards committees, in city councils amd state 
legislatures, and in the design offices of professional 
architects. The pi-oblem is we do not knov; hov; safe our 
decisions are. If successful, the NFPCA/SFPE project will 
tell us how safe our decisions are; it v;ill tell us v;hat 
parts of our decisions must be based on judgement and v;hat 
parts of our decisions can and should be based on fact. 
Hopefully, this project v/ill also tell us where thf- voids 
are and v:here further v/ork needs to be done to take raore 
of the guessv.'ork out of our important decisions v.'hich 
ultimately determine the safety of people irorr. fire. 



6 "Fire in the United States: Deaths, Injuries, Dollar 
Loss and Incidents at the National, State and Local 
Levels." National Fire Prevention and Control 
Administration, Washington, D.C., 1978. 



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